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Post-traumatic growth: thriving despite the scars

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Chaplain (Capt.) Jonathan Entrekin envisions a time when it becomes the norm for people to work past their traumas, past accepting their "new normals," and into a place in which they grow from their experiences in new ways- a phenomenon called post traumatic growth.

The Warrior Transition Battalion chaplain knows that dealing with trauma is difficult and complex. He feels, however, that as Soldiers work through their healing processes, they reach points where they can choose to just survive their traumas or they can choose to seek to grow from the experiences.

"Post traumatic growth doesn't mean you don't have a scar. Look, you are going to be scarred, but what do you do with your scars?" he said.

Entrekin spoke of a Soldier who suffered from severe burns who is now a public speaker, telling his story to inspire his audiences to grow in their own lives. Other Soldiers leave the WTB with new passions to help their peers through their journeys, he said.

"Post traumatic growth is the idea that we experience trauma, but that we can actually become stronger from having gone through it," the chaplain said. "I think it's important that we start presenting growth from trauma as an option; that's the first thing."

Post traumatic growth is an ancient concept with many different names that the Army recently incorporated into resiliency training.

"It really dovetails nicely the concept of therapy and working from a person's strength rather than weaknesses," Ellen Bloom, the WTB's chief of behavioral health, said.

Both Bloom and Entrekin emphasized that there is no such thing as a life that is trauma free, whether the trauma is from war or the death of a loved one or a crisis of faith.

Entrekin stressed that before someone can grow from trauma, one has to accept what happened, and to accept that there is no reversing time or going back to the way life was before the trauma. After acceptance comes the potential for growth.

"I think in some ways it is up to the person that experienced trauma ... someone can stay stuck," Entrekin said. "It becomes a mindset."

He said that some people can choose that they don't want to change, especially those who haven't worked through their grief.

"Some Soldiers feel very angry, and they choose to make that their identity," he said, noting that anger is a symptom of grief and loss, or fear.

"It's more work to get into the grieving process, or even to conquer fear, to get to the other side. It's hard work, but it can be done," the chaplain said. "Soldiers do a disservice to themselves if they think this is all there is, this is all there is left for them."

Entrekin urges both for traumatized Soldiers to seek growth, and for cadre, staff and caregivers to encourage it.

"Encouragement is a contagious thing," he said. "I think we need to be teaching people... how to thrive in their new status."

He sees this as both addressing fears that may be barriers to growth, such as fear of crowds or post-Army finances, and as encouraging Soldiers to see the strengths gained in their recoveries, such as translating increased discipline found in physical therapy to increased discipline and success elsewhere in life.

Entrekin and Bloom both said that cadre and caregivers can encourage Soldiers to be more independent, to be more proactive, and to take control.

Entrekin encourages supporters to change their responses from "Well, hang in there" to asking Soldiers, "How are you doing better?" While he said it is important to meet people where they are emotionally, it is also important to encourage them to be resourceful.

The bottom line is inspiring growth, and changing the expectation from surviving to thriving, he said.

"If this is the new normal, how can you make normal extraordinary?"

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